House Bill 512: Lawmakers React To ECOT Closure With Proposal to Slash School Board Authority

Background

For education watchers, it’s impossible not to view the new proposal from legislative leaders to dramatically change how education agencies are overseen outside of the context of state legislators’ anger at the Ohio Department of Education for holding the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) for misspending taxpayer funds. As recently as Feb. 12 – weeks after ECOT closed – the State Board of Education voted unanimously to continue pursing over $80 million the online charter school owes Ohio taxpayers.

Now, just as then-House Speaker Jon Husted led an effort to kill the Legislative Office of Education Oversight in 2005 in response to the office raising concerns about charters, legislative leaders are attempting to undercut the authority of the state Department of Education for taking on the charter school industry. With the introduction of House Bill 512, legislative leaders propose to remove all but figurehead power from the mostly-elected State Board of Education and shift it to the Governor and an appointed bureaucrat.

Here’s how they are doing it.

Power Shift to Governor’s Office

According to the Legislative Service Commission’s analysis of the 2,430-page bill, “the State Board, Superintendent, and Department of Education continue to exist, but”…  “most of their current powers and duties are transferred to the Department of Learning and Achievement or, where applicable, to the Director of Learning and Achievement.”

This new department (DLA) will swallow up the current Board of Regents, which oversees Ohio’s higher education system, the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development, as well as nearly all the important functions of the Ohio Department of Education. The Director of the DLA, to be appointed by the Governor, would oversee all those functions in a huge new bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the mostly-elected State Board of Education would be essentially neutered of all real authority over the state’s K-12 education policy, as it is left to oversee what functions remain at the existing Department of Education.

Charter School Accountability

As noted earlier, many legislative leaders have been critical of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE)’s efforts to recover upwards of $80 million from ECOT for the school’s overbilling of taxpayers, including House Education Chair Andrew Brenner, himself a co-sponsor of HB 512 and a major recipient of campaign funding from ECOT founder William Lager. Brenner’s campaign has taken in more than $25,000 from Lager just since 2015.

Under HB 512, ODE could continue to sponsor charter schools, but the office of oversight would be established by the new Department of Learning and Achievement. Curiously, the authority to sponsor charter schools remains at ODE under the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s aegis. This odd arrangement seems to allow the Governor-appointed DLA to pass off any accountability to the Superintendent, potentially shielding the Governor from scrutiny on this issue that has rocked Ohio’s education policy world over the last several years.

In addition, under the bill, the Superintendent still technically retains the ability to keep schools from hopping from one sponsor to another – a tactic many poor performing charters have used over the years to dodge scrutiny and continue collected millions in taxpayer funds for substandard performance. However, the DLA would have the first say in whether the school can move sponsors, rendering ODE’s role (and that of the elected State Board that oversees it) merely advisory.

The new DLA, and not the Board-accountable Superintendent, would have the ability to close charter schools. And, most importantly, it would be the DLA, and not the Board of Education or Superintendent that would examine a charter school’s attendance and participation records. This provision is the heart of HB 512’s apparent punishment of the current Department’s scrutiny of online charter school attendance and performance records.

Turns the Elected State Board of Education into the equivalent of the State Barber Board and makes a Governor’s appointee the state’s Education Overlord

Since the 1950s, the Ohio Board of Education has been the elected, independent voice for students and parents in state government. They have established state report cards, learning standards and oversight of nearly all aspects of Ohio’s K-12 educational system. Under this bill, about all the State Board would do would be to oversee teacher licensing and a minor, mostly rubber-stamping ability to oversee some charter school accountability – just enough to assume blame if anything bad were to happen.

Meanwhile, the new, immensely powerful Director of the DLA would set policy, standards and oversight of the state’s $12 billion a year K-12 education system. Putting that much power and authority under an unelected political appointee reporting to the Governor is greatly concerning for the development of sound, student-centered policy making and opens the door to even more political shenanigans with our children’s education system.